Leadership Lessons from the Baseball Diamond: Confidence Breeds Excellence

Back to the baseball diamond for another inning of leadership lessons.  Youth baseball tournaments continue to be fertile ground for leadership lessons that apply to athletics and just about any other endeavor in life.  Find some previous Leadership Lessons from the Baseball Diamond here.

Today’s installment:  Build confidence in your team members and they will perform their best.

In watching a recent game of 11-year olds, I became aware of a particular quality of a team that at first seemed odd. This team, for all you could see, was filled with studs.  They were big…smashed the ball in the cage…rocket arms in pregame warmups.  Then the game started.  Consider the following sequence of events:

  1. Things start as anyone watching the 2 teams warmup would expect.  “Big Guys” go up 6-2 by the end of the 2nd inning, but you get the feeling that they are in complete control, and no one would be surprised at a mercy rule end.  Only 2 real interesting thing of note:
    • The “Big Guys” coaching staff provides no verbal cue’s or direction to the team on the field.
    • There seems to be no real interaction or camaraderie amongst the players on the bench.
  2. In the top of the 3rd inning, with opposing men on 1st and 3rd base, the “Big Guys” catcher allows a ball to go by (a wild pitch), and the runners advance, 6-3.  The coach yells out to the catcher that he will be on the bench if any more balls get past.  There are 3 extra players on the bench.
  3. Later in the same inning, another ball gets by the catcher.  This time, it’s an 0-2 curveball in the dirt.  The batter swings, misses, and then runs and makes it safely to 1st on the dropped 3rd strike due to the catcher initially forgetting that the batter can run.  Coach yells out that there are plenty of other players on this team that would love to catch.  The catcher is visibly upset.
  4. In the top of the 4th inning, the score now 9-3, nobody on base and no outs, a line drive is hit to “Big Guys” right fielder.  The right fielder and the ball converge as the ball hits the ground.  It scoots under the diving fielder’s mitt and roles 30 feet past him.  The center field hustles over, retrieves the ball, and throws it in to the infield.  The runner advances to 2nd base.  The coach yells out to the right fielder, “You HAVE TO keep that ball in front of you!”.  The right fielder sulks back to his position for the next pitch.
  5. At this point, there are verbal warnings form the coaches to the players on the field about how they are not playing up to their potential and that they are better than that.  Mind you, there has been essentially zero actual instruction or cue’s for the particular defensive situations.  The crowd is silent…there is no talking on the bench.
  6. Now with the runner on 2nd, and no outs, the pitcher wheels and attempts to pick off the runner.  The 2nd baseman had already moved off the bag back toward the hole.  He couldn’t get there and the ball sails into center field.  The runner advances to 3rd.  The coach yells out to the 2nd baseman, “You HAVE GOT TO READ that better!  We are BETTER than that!” (Just a reminder to the reader that these are 11-year olds).  The pitcher yells something to the 2nd baseman as well.
  7. That sequence of events seems to energize the opposition.  They start to the hit pitcher, and there are some bloops and seeing-eye ground balls, and a couple of walks.  By the end of 4th, its 9-7 “Big Guys”.  “Big Guys” coach yells, “Get in here!” with his angry eyes in place and huddles the team.  I have no idea what was said, but there are 12 kids with heads down, hunched shoulders, and shuffly walks to the bench as they prepare to hit.
  8. “Big Guys” go down 1-2-3.  The 2nd and 3rd batters strike out by swinging at questionable pitches.  The coach yells that they need better pitch selection.
  9. Fast forward to the top of the 6th (the last inning in 11U baseball).  The score is now 10-9 “Big Guys”, and there is a runner on 3rd base and 1 out for the opposition.  The tension on the “Big Guys” bench and in the stands is palpable.  There’s mumbling amongst the parents.  But…the opposition is cheering and high-fiving!
  10. The batter hits a ground ball to the short stop, who fields it, and pulls up to fire, but seems unsure.  He double pumps and takes an extra shuffle step before letting it fly to home.  The runner, who was moving on contact, doesn’t even need to slide.  Safe by a mile, game tied.  And now there’s a runner on 1st as well.
  11. Next batter walks…1st and 2nd, with 1 out.  Coach is silent on the bench.  No chatter whatsoever from the players on the field.
  12. Wild pitch gets by the catcher…2nd and 3rd with one out.
  13. The batter hits a popup to shallow left field between the short stop and left fielder.  Both are there in plenty of time, but neither calls it, and neither makes the catch.  Bases jammed, 1 out.
  14. Next batter hits a gapper between center and right, clears the bases.  12-10 opposing team.
  15. The game ends this way.

What did I learn about this team, and more importantly, it’s leadership?

To be fair, the coach was actually correct from a baseball standpoint in the admonitions that are seen in this sequence.  Taken individually, and viewed from the context of content only, he was right.  But he FAILED in 2 IMPORTANT areas that ultimately led to his team losing the game:

  1. He destroyed their individual and collective confidence by immediately focusing their attention on their mistakes and being visibly angry at their errors.  Baseball is a game of “failure”.  Why?  Because Hall of Fame hitters only succeed 30% of the time.  That means they “fail” 70% of the time.  The ones who make it are the ones who can focus on the success and on how to succeed, rather than always being drawn to focus on the failure.
  2. As the leader, he did NOT do HIS PART, by taking HIS BURDEN off of the players.  The coach is owner of the game plan.  It’s his responsibility to put his players in positions to make plays before each pitch. He did little to none of that.  If this was a professional team, the coach has every right to expect that his players should know these things implicitly.  BUT, these were 11 year olds!  Most of them can’t remember to bring their water, or their mitt, or wear their cleats.  Certainly they are starting to understand the game at this age, but each player is a unique situation.  The reality is that with players of this age, the coaching staff should be instructing and giving verbal cue’s to the players at each inflection point in the game.  The coaches should be reminding the players of the situation and making calls so the players are in the proper mindset for the next pitch.  These kids can make plays physically, but they are still in need of assistance on the mental side.

On the flip side, the team that won game used the GAINING of confidence to their great advantage.  As soon as they saw some cracks in the armor of the “Big Guys”, they realized that they were in the game.  They weren’t thinking about making mistakes, they were simply out there playing.  Their coaches were encouraging them and were excited with them.  They actually did made mistakes, but there was no focus on them.  The focus was on how each time they did something right, the other team got tighter and tighter.

This lesson in leadership applies directly to our lives.  Any team, in any situation, will perform its best if its members have confidence.

As the leader, you need to find ways to boost that confidence, and the main one is to simply allow the team members to make mistakes.  If a team member understands that its OK to make a mistake when honestly trying to do the right thing, then this builds his/her confidence and allows them to contribute in more ways, such as:

When your team is loose and unafraid, they have the potential to soar higher, go faster, and ultimately perform better.  They are not overthinking and they are empowered.  When they are tight and afraid, they make decisions based on fear, and that results in hesitation or overthinking.  Overthinking can lead to “wrong thinking”.  If they are afraid to make decision, they continuously avoid them by always pulling in the leadership.  This slows everything down.

This does NOT mean you allow your team members to be unprepared, careless, unengaged, malicious, or negligent of their duties.  It simply means that honest mistakes should not be punished.  You and your team must learn from those mistakes to get even better.

There was another great ancillary lesson here in leadership, and that is: the team members gain confidence in themselves when they are allowed to focus on THEIR JOB.  The leader, in this case the coach of the team, must take on the burdens that sit outside the scope of responsibility of the team members.  It is the leader’s job to ensure that the framework and the direction are in place.  The coach, knowing that these are 11-yr old kids, must understand that they are going to need some verbal cue’s and reminders of what to do in the given circumstance.

The same is true in life.  The team members usually have enough to focus on without also having to worry about the things that are typically expected of the leader.  It varies, of course, but things such as direction, priority, schedule, budgets, expenses, moral, etc are all items that are part of the leaders responsibility.  If a team member is confident that the leader is taking care of his/her items, then that helps to build confidence in the team itself.

Now you know…

The big take away here is that confident individuals typically perform the best.  Most times when the individuals are performing their best, the team is also.  If you are in a leadership position, one of your goals is to instill confidence in your team members, and one of the main ways for you to do that is allow them to make mistakes.  Ultimately, it’s not that a mistake is made, it’s how the leader reacts and what comes of the mistake that leads to the outcome. 

I hope this helped you in some way, and if so, please share it with others, and please connect with me.  I would love to hear your thoughts and the experiences you’ve had as well.

Have a great day!

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